The Remarkable Turnaround of a Failed Startup


Back in 2015, I joined a startup called Cinemarkets Digital Solutions, founded by a veteran of the entertainment industry. His vision was to build a digital marketplace for the film and television industry, connecting producers, talent, service providers and professionals. He wanted to enable business with transparency and reduce unnecessary commissions and pilferage in the industry.

Launching the Digital Marketplace

While the marketplace was under development, my priority was to build brand awareness within the industry. We launched a YouTube channel featuring exclusive interviews with prominent celebrities and augmented it by creating an online magazine carrying movie reviews and trade news.

With the beta launch of the marketplace, the business development team sprung into action, but the initial reception was not very encouraging. So, we partnered with a few production companies to launch online auditions on the marketplace, and were able to cross 5,000 subscribers in a few weeks.

Cinemarkets Website Marketplace

However, the success was short-lived as we realized that the share of paid subscribers was very low and it seemed almost impossible to onboard people, even with face-to-face meetings and demos. An industry that inherently functions with referrals and kickbacks had rejected our product and sadly, we did not have a plan B.

Pivot and Profit-Backed Growth

The initial funding was drying-up and in the absence of subscription revenue from the marketplace, the startup was approaching an impecunious state. Given that the core business had failed, fresh funding was out of the question. The retrenchment began with laying-off almost 90% of the workforce and moving to a smaller office space.

Now, we needed a plan to generate immediate revenue and I decided to pivot the startup to a digital marketing agency for production companies and movies. The initial brand-building done to set the stage for the marketplace came in handy as we started pitching for business and most prospects seemed familiar with the brand name.

Our first client was an independent movie called Bollywood Diaries, which gave us the cash and confidence to acquire more business. We also helped American dancer and actress Lauren Gottlieb to launch a charitable venture called Leap for Hunger, aimed at providing meals to underprivileged children in Mumbai.

Lauren Gottlieb - Leap for Hunger

As the clientele grew and revenues streamlined, we were able to square-off all external debt and make the company profitable. A startup that had failed in less than 6 months of inception went on to have a remarkable turnaround and profitably sustained itself for the next few years.

Digital Marketing for Production Companies

Yash Raj Films

Yash Raj Films Logo

We worked on social media campaigns for two movies – Fan and Sultan, both released in 2016. As part of our campaigns, we created vox pop videos to promote the movies and ran contests on Twitter to supplement the buzz being created just before the release.

Prakash Jha Productions

Prakash Jha Productions

We managed them as a retainer client, handling entire content marketing and social media for the production company, especially during the lull period when no movies were nearing release. We had experimented with the concept of movie memorabilia with Jai Gangaajal, allowing movie fans to buy props like the uniform and truncheon (police baton), along with autographed merchandise. We also managed the digital promotions of Lipstick Under My Burkha, right from the infamous censorship battle to the theatrical release.

Purple Pebble Pictures

Priyanka Chopra’s production company was another retainer client. I launched the digital presence of the company and managed the digital promotions for their first Marathi movie Ventilator, which went on to win several awards including 3 National Awards, 5 Filmfares and was the Best Film at Maharashtra State Film Awards. This was followed by a Punjabi movie called Sarvann, where I was involved right from the pre-production stage and used digital and mobile marketing to drive ticket sales in Canada and India. I also worked on some pre-release campaigns for Kaay Re Rascalaa, another Marathi project and Pahuna: The Little Visitors, a Nepali language movie set in Sikkim.

Shakti Sagar Productions

Shakti Sagar Productions - Sonu Sood

I worked with actor Sonu Sood as he released his first production, Tutak Tutak Tutiya, under the banner of the newly formed Shakti Sagar Productions. I helped him with digital promotions of the movie as well as his own social media. The relationship continued and another project came in the form of Kung Fu Yoga, Jackie Chan’s highest grossing movie in China, which co-starred Sonu Sood. I managed the entire digital marketing for the Indian release of the movie.

Digital Promotions for Independent Movies

Critically Acclaimed Movies

Our first project after the pivot was Bollywood Diaries, a movie about the passionate struggles of aspiring actors, targeting a very niche audience. As part of the campaign, we offered aspiring actors a chance to appear in a Bollywood film by participating in an online audition contest, which promoted the movie in the right niche. Despite a modest box office response, the movie saw a strong home video demand from this audience and even won various national and international accolades including an award at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival.

Another noteworthy project was the Marathi movie Kaul – A Calling, which was a supernatural thriller. Sound design was the USP of the movie and we promoted it as a cinematic experience, even consciously restricting the release to theatres equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. This movie also won various awards at film festivals all over the globe and even at Filmfare, back home.

Movies on Social Causes

I worked on two movies themed around farmer suicides and water scarcity issues in Maharashtra. One of them was a Hindi language movie called Project Marathwada, and the other was a Marathi language movie called Youth.

Regional Crime Thrillers

I worked on this movie called Dongri ka Raja, a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Dongri underworld. The movie was primarily targeted to an audience that prefers low-cost single-screen theatres to multiplexes, and expects entertainment more than cinematic marvel from a movie-outing. Our digital campaign was heavily mobile-driven, including low-end smartphones and feature phones to reach the intended audience of the movie.

Another project was a Marathi movie called Bhay, which revolved around a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who locks himself in his own home to stay safe. The movie subtly touched upon the fact that insensitive crime reporting by some media outlets could psychologically affect regular citizens.

Animated and Children’s Movies

I worked on digital promotions for the animated movie Mahayoddha Rama, which won the National Award for Best Animated Film. An adaptation of the Ramayana, the movie portrayed internal conflicts of Ravana through fascinating conversations among his 10 heads, all voiced by different artists. Another children’s movie was Shortcut Safaari, which exhibited the adventures of a group of tweens who get lost and stuck in a forest for three days.